For the love of the game

At an age when most defensive backs have called it a career, Lawyer Milloy has rejuvenated his with the Seattle Seahawks and – at almost 37 and in his 15th NFL season – is starting at strong safety.

On one play, he was all over the intended receiver in the end zone to force an incomplete pass. On another, he dropped the ball carrier in his tracks with a forceful thump.
In between, he was busting some new-school moves to the old-school hip-hip that was coming from the speakers along the sideline.

Earl Thomas, the Seahawks’ 21-year-old rookie free safety.

No, these age-defying, respect-earning antics in Tuesday’s two-hour, full-pads practice at Bing Training Camp came courtesy of Lawyer Milloy – the wonder-of-nature who is starting at strong safety, despite being almost 37 and in his 15th NFL season.

While watching Milloy zip through – and lead – drills with players much, much younger than he is, it’s difficult to shake two questions:

One, why is he still doing this? After all, Milloy is closer to the age of defensive backs coach Jerry Gray (47) than he is to Thomas.

“I’m doing it because I love it,” Milloy said. “I still love it. I’m doing it because there’s still the challenge of getting better every time I go on the field. The minute that I feel like none of that exists, it’s time to hang them up.”

Two, how is he still able to do it so well at an age when most other defensive backs have called it a career? When Milloy joined the New England Patriots as a second-round draft choice in 1996, Thomas was 8, Gray was just starting his coaching career at Southern Methodist University and Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll was the defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers.

“How am I doing it?” said Milloy, whose playing weight (207 pounds) is the same as it was in college.“I’ve been blessed over my career not to have major injuries. I’m still pretty fit. I feel good.”

Milloy, who was an all-state player at Tacoma’s Lincoln High School and then an All-American at the University of Washington, joined the Seahawks last season. He is back – and reunited with Carroll, who coached him with the Patriots; and Gray, who coached him with the Buffalo Bills – because of what he was able to show in limited opportunities.

“When Pete and I sat down to watch tape of the Seahawks’ games from last season, I was like, ‘He looks like the same guy I had in Buffalo,’ ” said Gray, who was the Bills’ defensive coordinator from 2001-05. “Then Pete said, ‘He looks like the same guy I had in New England.’

“There’s no drop off. Lawyer still does the same things – he goes full speed, he competes, he goes after guys, he does what he needs to do in order to make this defense better.”

And make this defense better is a shared goal of Carroll, Gray and Milloy, after the Seahawks ranked 30th in the league in pass defense last season – a season when Milloy knew he could do more to help, but wasn’t given the opportunity on a fulltime basis.

But the way he handled not being a starter for the first time in career, and playing on special teams for the first time in his career, only added to the admiration other players and his coaches have for Milloy.

“I’ve known Lawyer and watched Lawyer for a long time and had somewhat of a special relationship with him when he was very young,” said Carroll, who coached the Patriots from 1997-99 – when Milloy earned two of four Pro Bowl selections.

“He’s such an interesting character on a football team because he’s so physical and so tough and cares so much that he’s always left a lasting impression. So I’ve always kept an eye on him over the years. When I realized we were coming here and he had played here, I had in the back of my mind that he could be a great guy to help us transition a new program because we were familiar and we did have some background.”

That’s why Milloy was re-signed in late April, and almost immediately stepped in at strong safety – where he can mentor Thomas, but also because he still knows how to throw his weight around.

But even Carroll had to wonder.

“When I finally watched his film and saw him knocking the fire out of people I kept thinking, ‘He can’t keep doing this,’ ” Carroll said, shaking his shake and breaking into a smile. “I was wondering if he was going to get up. Not only was he getting up, he was standing over guys and being all jacked up.

“I thought, ‘Jeez, if we could add him it would really be an asset for us.’ He brings so much leadership and toughness and awareness of the game, and he’s willing to send the message, too.”

Which brings us back to those original, and reoccurring, questions:  Why and how is Milloy still doing all that after all these years?

“He has a remarkable body and for all the hits he’s dished out over the years and all the playing, it’s amazing that he’s as healthy as he is,” Carroll said. “He has this kind of outgoing toughness about him. He has it in his heart, too. He’s just a tremendous warrior-type of competitor and that’s so valuable to share that kind of mentality on your football team and we respect it so much.

That, in one word, might best describe what makes Milloy tick: Respect.

He respects the game, and because of that plays it in a way to earn the respect of others – teammates and opponents alike.

“I play the game for respect,” he said. “The biggest compliment I can get is for somebody to come up and say, ‘Hey, I respect how you play.’ To me, that’s being accountable – self-accountable. Being dependable. Showing up every day. Being consistent. Showing my passion for the game.”

Just as he has for the past 14 seasons, and 196 career starts.

“I respect the game,” he offered. “The foundation was set down for me early (in New England) with Willie McGinest, Drew Bledsoe, Bruce Armstrong and Ben Coates to respect the game. You respect the game you get the rewards back from the game.”

Gray was a Pro Bowl cornerback during his NFL career, and he still makes spot-on reads of situations.

“The thing with Lawyer is his maturity,” Gray said. “He cherishes what he’s got and he wants to keep competing. That’s what Lawyer does. As long as he keeps competing, he’ll have the edge to keep going. Once you stop competing, that’s when you get old real quick.”